Genes might help you learn Chinese

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue May 29 15:58:18 UTC 2007

Genes might help you learn Chinese Tuesday, 29 May 2007
Hamish Clarke
Cosmos Online
   [image: Genes might help you learn Chinese]  New research suggests that
genes might play a role in learning tonal languages like Chinese

 SYDNEY: Healthy babies can learn any language, but new research suggests
that genes might play a part in learning tonal languages like Chinese.

Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland found
a genetic difference between people who speak tonal languages – such as
Chinese and most languages of sub-Saharan Africa – and those who speak
non-tonal languages like English.

"Our work raises the possibility of taking a new look at the relation
between genes and language," said Ladd, reporting in the U.S. journal
of the National Academy of Sciences*.

The language each person speaks has traditionally been considered an
entirely cultural trait, determined no more by genes than religious beliefs
or musical preferences. As evidence, scientists point to the fact that
regardless of ancestry, any normal baby learns the languages it hears during
its early years.

*Don't take that tone with me*

But now Dediu and Ladd believe they may have found the first evidence that
genes are involved in acquisition of specific language types. In tonal
languages, subtle changes in pitch can radically alter the meaning of a
word. So a non-native Chinese speaker enquiring after the health of
someone's mother might easily enquire about the wellbeing of their horse
instead. In non-tonal languages this is not the case, although tone is still
used to express emotion, convey sarcasm or indicate a question.

Dediu and Ladd examined published data on 49 distinct populations from
around the world, looking for the distribution of two genes for brain
development: ASPM and Microcephalin. They then searched for correlations
between different forms of each gene and 26 different linguistic features.
The authors found that there is generally no link between genes and
linguistic features, but a strong negative correlation emerged between
speakers of tonal languages and recently evolved forms of ASPM and
Microcephalin. That is, people with the older forms of these genes were more
likely to speak tonal languages, even when biases for geography and history
were removed.

*Genes, Language and Society *

Ladd believes that discovering a causal link between population genetics and
language structure would be big news, but says he and Dediu haven't found
that link yet. "We've just demonstrated some very unlikely correlations that
suggest there *might* be such a link." As science uncovers more about
specific genetic influences, "society is ... going to have to start dealing
with a lot of policy questions that have only been theoretical up till now,"
said Ladd. He cites research on the genetic influences over dyslexia as one
example. Should parents, educators or speech pathologists be given access to
a child's genetic information in this case?

Bruce Lahn, a geneticist from the University of Chicago, published the
dataset on ASPM and Microcephalin on which Dediu and Ladd's work is partly
based. "The work is highly significant if confirmed," Lahn said. "It is, to
my knowledge, the first attempt to relate linguistic features, traditionally
considered to be purely cultural, with a possible genetic contribution." The
authors hope that future experiments will reveal the path by which ASPM and
Microcephalin exert their influence on individual brains, and ultimately, on
the preferences of entire populations for different types of language.

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